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Mexico is a smoking mountain


Mexico City -- OF THE MANY jokes making the rounds about Mexico's president, Ernesto Zedillo, maybe the most appropriate one is this: Mr. Zedillo is in a rowboat with the pope and a big wind blows the pontiff's miter off his head. Mr. Zedillo climbs out of the boat, walks on water and retrieves the pope's cap. The next day's headlines in the Mexican newspapers read: "Zedillo Can't Swim."

Since taking office Dec. 1, Mr. Zedillo has been overwhelmed by Mexico's economic crisis, which erupted 19 days after he was sworn in. This has left the impression that his cabinet is the gang that couldn't shoot straight.

His aides openly concede that they were not prepared to deal with the economic situation, largely because they thought they were going to inherit a Rolls-Royce economy and when they discovered they had the keys to a jalopy about to be repossessed they weren't sure what to do. It has taken them two months to come up with a real rescue plan.

But what has been obscured is that Mr. Zedillo, while stumbling around in economics, has simultaneously instituted an impressive series of political reforms -- making Mexico more open, democratic and less corrupt than ever before -- for which he has gotten no credit, at home or abroad.

Since coming to office, the Yale-educated Mr. Zedillo has sacked the entire corrupt Supreme Court, which he replaced with new judges and made independent of the presidency; he has suppressed the guerrilla insurgency in Chiapas; he has empowered the traditionally rubber-stamp Mexican legislature with real oversight responsibilities; he has given the political opposition a significant role in his cabinet; he has begun instituting the rule of law, where arbitrariness used to reign, and he has jailed the brother of ex-President Carlos Salinas, in a courageous effort to root out corruption in Mexico's Mafia-style ruling class.

In the short run, Mr. Zedillo is calculating that because Mexico is about to go through a brutal recession, with massive unemployment, having a more open political system that allows for more demonstrations and channels discontent via the ballot box may enable this society to blow off steam without blowing off the lid.

In the long run, Mr. Zedillo is gambling that by diffusing power, rather than concentrating it like his predecessors, he will ultimately have more legitimacy, more authority and more cooperation from labor and business in getting this economy out of Chapter 11. That is a big bet. Mexico has always been a country that relied on a strong presidency to deal with crises, and what is democracy to Mr. Zedillo could be a tempting power vacuum to his opponents.

"This moment is one of a profound shaking of the political system," said Antonio Lozano, Mr. Zedillo's attorney general, whose investigations of the previous government have turned up a trail of murder and drug money that has rattled the traditional power elite. "I have received full support from the president for my investigation. But we need support at home and from abroad."

That's for sure. As I left Mr. Lozano's office, I went to close his door and it was so heavy with bullet-proof glass and steel I could barely move it. No Toto, this isn't Kansas.

And that's what worries me. Talking with several of Mr. Zedillo's aides and ministers, I came away feeling that they are "nice guys" who are in a bit over their heads. They lack what Mexican politicos call "colmillo," or fangs. They need our help, and I think they deserve it.

If Mr. Zedillo succeeds, we will finally have the sort of democratic Mexico as a neighbor that we have long coveted. If he fails, there will be an explosive, nationalist backlash.

"Wall Street can help by giving us a break -- stop attacking us for 90 days," Finance Minister Guillermo Ortiz said. "You don't have to be bullish on Mexico; just stop dumping the peso. Give our plan a chance."

There is a semi-active volcano east of Mexico City known as "Popo," an Indian word that means smoking mountain. Last December, the same week Mexico announced its disastrous peso devaluation, Popo started to spew smoke and ash, after a long period of inactivity.

Let's not fool ourselves. Mexico today is Popo. It is a smoking mountain, and Ernesto Zedillo is sitting on top of it.

Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.

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